Monday, May 24, 2010

Yet More Thoughts on Governance (& Armageddon)

As this year's campaign season heats up along with the weather, I'm starting to get bombarded by directed rhetoric. A man running to be my congressional candidate has robo-called me several times, and my mail sags with the weight of glossy postcards and brochures aimed at securing my vote.

It seems it's a bad year for incumbents, what with Tea Party mania sweeping the land and animating would-be voters, but I have to admit a certain disappointment with the lack of depth in most people's positions on issues. For instance, on last night's local newscast, I heard a liberal demonstrator use the exact simple-minded constructions to attack Sarah Palin that she uses. I realize I only have myself to blame for being surprised at ignorance and irrationality.

In another recent instance, I listened to a local citizen kvetch about the government's response to the oil welling up in the Gulf of Mexico, apparently thinking that "the government" possesses some capacity to control the disaster -- as if the Navy has warehouses full of booms and robotic submarines and chemical dispersants that they can deploy on a moment's notice, so long as the President gives the word. (Is there any more ludricrous analogy than calling the Gulf of Mexico oil spill "Obama's Katrina"?)

And such a view has no appreciation of the thorny legal issues involved in governmental interference in private corporate ventures taking place offshore. Sure, people died, and others needed rescuing when the drilling platform exploded & sunk. But, when construction workers got killed building our local CityCenter, where was the outcry for a government takeover of that project? (Okay, this analogy is simplistic, but that's part of my point.)

But what can you do about a worldview informed more by Jerry Bruckheimer than Thomas L. Friedman? No wonder such a person thinks we can just fix this latest catastrophe by calling in Bruce Willis & his gang from Armageddon. It's this kind of thinking that sends our precious military into the desert on the other side of the planet in the name of fighting terrorism & securing democracy, only to be surprised that we end up enmeshed in a decade-long counterinsurgency.

People have a simplistic view of government and the art of governance. The complexities of reality baffle them. The financial crisis was born of reckless deregulation, but efforts to correct that mistake have been met with reductionist rhetoric about "big government" and the inefficiencies of bureaucracy. Never mind the notion that doing nothing only sets the stage for further financial crises, however imperfect our legislative solutions may be, "government" is seen as a uniform evil -- until you need rescue from whatever catastrophe has exploded in your neighborhood.

Government isn't a vending machine, where you can walk up, put your money in and only select what you want. In order to have the protections and services you want, you have to understand that they come with attendant complexities, like bureaucracy and regulation. I'm all for checks & balances, and I believe democracy works best when an informed & vigilant citizenry actively prunes the tendrils of power. But the government isn't evil, and it isn't the enemy of liberty. It's as necessary as oxygen.

The free market is also necessary, as is free speech. But a completely deregulated market leads to predation & exploitation, as both our financial crises and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill evince. The market creates efficiencies, sure, but they are largely amoral, which nobody wants in charge. After all, only a fool wants amoral efficiency to determine how health care gets distributed.

And isn't it amazing that the same people who want to rewrite textbooks in order to insert their version of "moral certainty" are also largely the same people who advocate amoral, free-market determinism in their health-care? Could it be because they have the money to pay for doctor visits?

Actually, I am never amazed when people with money become selfish. It's human nature. This is why the nouveau-riche are so easily seduced by the sophomoric writings of Ayn Rand. Her "objectivism" appeals to their sense of personal achievement (& thus entitlement). In their view, less-successful people deserve their fates.

And, of course, the reason that multinational corporations like BP are allowed to cut corners and operate recklessly is that they're largely unfettered by regulation. Not only that, but enforcement of existing regulations is strangled by ever-tightening purse-strings. And these corporations are also protected by layers of liability bolstered by enormous profits. As free-marketers are wont to tell you, profits are moral, at least until they wash up on your beaches in a disastrous slick.

In the end, this is all just the latest tempest in our teacups. I wonder what future generations will think of how we spent our days and dollars. What's likely is that they'll be just as myopic as we are, complaining about their taxes but wondering where the government is when disaster strikes.

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